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Parashat Terumah

February 23, 2012

By Rabbi Greg Schindler

“You’re not listening to me, are you?

The words cut me to the quick. I, in fact, have no idea what was being said for the last minute or so.

We’ve all been there — a family member or friend is talking to us, and what are we doing? We are daydreaming, checking our cell phone, or thinking about what we intend to say next. What we’re not doing, is listening.

Listening is not the same as hearing. We hear all sorts of things every day; most of it simply goes in one proverbial ear and out the other. When we listen, however, we are giving the other person our undivided attention, allowing another’s communication, both verbal and nonverbal, to touch us deeply. In The Good Listener, James Sullivan describes good listening as stepping out of my world and entering yours (James Sullivan, The Good Listener, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, p. 78). When we grant another person all of our attention, it makes that person feel understood and cared for. Poor listening, however, signals that a person’s words are not worth our time, that his ideas and feelings are without value.

This week’s Torah portion is chiefly concerned with the construction of the Mishkan (the portable Sanctuary) and its vessels. The most essential of these vessels – and Harrison Ford’s goal in Raiders of the Lost Ark – is the Ark of the Covenant, the receptacle for the Tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai. The instructions for making the Ark’s cover contain a very curious passage:

“You shall make a cover of pure gold… You shall make two cherubim of gold. Hammered out you shall make them, from both ends of the cover. You shall make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other end… The cherubim shall be with wings spread upward, sheltering the cover with their wings with their faces toward one another” (Exod. 25:18-20).

Indeed, the very Tablets that were to be placed inside unequivocally state, “You shall not make yourself a graven image nor any likeness of what is in the heavens above”(Exod. 20:3-4). What could be so important about the Ark’s cover that it would merit an exception from the prohibition on physical representations of the Divine?

Perhaps the answer lies in the purpose of the Ark and its cherubim. We learn in the next verse: “It is there that I shall set My meetings with you, and I shall speak with you from atop the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on the Ark of the testimonial tablets” (Exod. 25:22). In short, the Ark’s cover was a place of communication, a place of listening.

While the cherubim may have seemed to be two separate beings, the 11th century commentator Rashi tells us that they were actually hammered from a single sheet of gold (Rashi to Exod. 25:18). Most of the time, the separation between the figures appeared real. However, at times of Divine communication – such as the Holy Days – the figures would exhibit their underlying unity. The Talmud relates that the curtains around the Holy of Holies would be pulled back on the Holy Days and the Ark would be visible to the People. And what did the People see of the cherubim at these times? “They would be embracing one another[carnally] (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a).” What seemed to be two was now revealed as one.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber considers the different forms of relationships that we may have with the world and with one another. Generally, our relationships are on an “I – It” level, even where the “It” is our fellow human being. However, there are moments of real communication and real listening, where the distance between us dissolves. At these times, your “You” confronts my “I” in all its uniqueness, filling the firmament and uniting us (Martin Buber, I and Thou, Touchstone Books, 1970, p. 126).

One of the central prayers of Judaism is the Shema, the first verses of which read as follows:

· “Listen! O Israel,

· Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.

· (Blessed is the Name of [God’s] glorious kingdom forever and ever.)

· You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.”

In light of our discussion, the order of verses is striking:

· First we Listen.

· Then we experience Unity

· (Despite the apparent multiplicity in the world of time and space.)

· Then we experience Love.

As James Sullivan says in The Good Listener (p. 88), “It is when we learn to listen with sensitivity and concern that we truly learn to love!”


Rabbi Greg Schindler is a very active member of Beit Chaverim Synagogue, Westport, Connecticut.